Hi. Barb here, still in sunny Key West. (Don’t hate me.)
I’m in the muddle in the middle of the first draft of my next Maine Clambake Mystery, Fogged Inn. And my general muddle at this point has me pondering the notion of Unconscious Competence.
We’ve all seen this model for mastering a skill, right?
The theory was developed at the Gordon Training International in the 1970s, but it’s become pretty much a part of everyday culture since.
Unconscious Incompetence: The idea is before you begin to acquire a skill, you don’t know anything about it, including what you don’t know. All of us have met fiction “writers” at this stage of development. Usually they are armchair authors who do not actually write, but whose reaction to most things they read is, “I could do way better than this.”
Conscious Incompetence: But once you start writing fiction, you realize, “Man, this is hard.” I mean really hard, because fiction-writing includes so many layers and the use of many, many skills. There are story-telling skills: structure, timelines, logic (repeat for plot and every subplot). There are character development skills: background, personality, emotion, motivation, arc (repeat for just about every named character). There are the the narrative skills: developing theme, pacing, symbolism. And there are the prose skills, choosing the words needed to convey all of the above, (repeat for every chapter, scene, paragraph, sentence and word). It’s a lot to keep track of.
Conscious Competence: So, the hapless writer decides to acquire some skills. Whether he takes classes, or reads how-to books, or analyzes the books of his betters, or seeks out good critiquers and editors, or most likely all of the above, becoming a conscious competent certainly involves writing, writing, writing. And writing a lot of crap that eventually gets better.
Unconscious Competence: Unconscious competence comes when you’ve so internalized a skill, you can do it without thinking. Like riding a bike or driving or, well, fill in your own blank. Everyone has skills like this.
But lately I’ve begun to wonder, “Do writers ever reach the level of Unconscious Competence?” Most writers I know, even the best ones, are piles of quivering self-doubt. And that’s on a good day. They all wonder when they start a new book, Will this be the time it doesn’t work? When they are in the muddle in the middle, they wonder, Is this the time it will be unfixable? And sometimes, even for really experienced writers, it is that time, and they have to throw it all out and start over.
I myself have been hanging out at the junction of Conscious Incompetence and Conscious Competence for years. I’m a little weary of it, to tell the truth.
I have hope. There are a few little aspects of the job I have knocked and feel confident about. But the bulk of it…oy.
Sometimes I think Unconscious Competence shouldn’t be a goal in the arts–because there lies formula, repetition, the worst kind of hackery. But then I watch fine artists and musicians and others whose confidence in their baseline skills gives them the ability to soar.
And I return to wanting, hoping, practicing and honing..